The Gauntlet and The Watch

The Gauntlet

I haven't played in a game with The Gauntlet in while. The first time was The Final Girl back in 2016, and since then I got to play in a game of Breakers this year. But, now I've been a Patreon member of the Gauntlet that gives me some priority to get into online games, and so I took advantage and signed up for a few games in the coming months.

Preparing to play The Watch

The Watch is an RPG, designed by Anna Kreider Andrew Medeiros, which explores what happens when a dark force takes over members of the tribe, in this case males being specifically susceptible:

The Watch is a tabletop roleplaying game set in a “light fantasy” setting known as The Clanlands. It takes place during a dark and horrific war between the now-united ten clans who live there and an invading force, known only as The Shadow. 

The Shadow is a powerful and insidious enemy that is able to enter the minds of its opponents and slowly turn them to its side; twisting them into unnatural foes. For reasons unknown, The Shadow is able to more easily influence the minds of men, and has turned a great deal of the clan’s soldiers against itself.

I backed The Watch on Kickstarter, and have been looking forward to seeing it in play. Michael X. Heiligenstein, a fellow Gauntleteer, has been running it for The Gauntlet's online gaming community for a story arc planned for 7 sessions. Luckily, I got in on one of the games, as Yoshi, one of the regulars, planned on missing a session.

I got the quickstart material (released to KS backers until the game is completed), and chose a playbook that was so far not represented in the party, The RavenTo fear is to prove we are human. To overcome that fear is to know the minds of the gods. The Agenda? Be poetic and wise. Looking at the playbook I see elements of shamanism in the form of deity worship, performing rituals, delivering eulogies, and - interestingly - conversations and psychology. Before long I had my character: Lollec.

Although the playbook defines your position in your clan and facets of your personality and skills, you make a separate decision for which clan you are from. There are ten clans, including Sharn (hunter/gatherers), Dothas (mystics), Thedon (builders/masons), and Royshan (warriors).

I went with clan Richti (nomads). None of the other players had chosen that clan, and what's great about this game - like many PbtA games - is that the players define major elements of the clans. This would come up more during play, but I had some initial, loose thoughts:

I decided that Lollec would worship a god named Ta'al, whose domain was travel. Because I chose two Raven's moves of Divine Agent (worship of Ta'al) and Healthy Discourse (engage in philosophical, moral, or ethical debate), I decided that "travel" would be defined as both physical journey, as well as that which is mental and spiritual. 

I envisioned the Richti as nomadic, maybe somewhat looked down upon by most other clans. Maybe with a reputation almost as free-loaders. That said, the Richti see themselves as wanderers and keepers of the lore of the land, and with a mission to disseminate knowledge, thinking, and practices amongst the tribes... a way to loosely bind them together. Although the Richti themselves have elements (mostly philosophy on life) which makes them a somewhat cohesive group, they travel in smaller groups, which often live with, or beside, other communities for some time, providing services and help (at least in their opinions).

Lollec: The Raven

Lollec: The Raven

A large element of The Watch is the premise that males are particularly susceptible to the corrupting force which is The Shadow (which is itself very loosely defined, so I was curious what that would look like in play). When creating your character, you define your gender as one of the following: Trans Woman, Cis Woman, Genderqueer, Fluid, Non-binary.

In the real world I'm a Cis Hetero Male. I play a mix of male or female characters in general (probably with a majority being female, especially when I find it balances the character gender ratio at the table). I've rarely played a gay character, and never someone trans. There was some internal conversations I had with myself about whether or not I'd feel comfortable playing a trans character, given I have a few friends, but not sure that I'd do justice in empathizing with growing up in that position. I don't think any of that is particularly answered at this point.

In the end I decided that Lollec would identify as non-binary, having them not identify with either gender. I went with a pronoun choice of "they/them/theirs", partly because I myself haven't internalized that use in the real world.

I decided that Lollec would be in a relationship. In this case, since the setting is pretty agnostic as far as culture, I decided to have a family structure that consisted of a triad, with a male (Leera) and female (Tannar). Due to worship, I decided that Lollec has been on a journey, and has had to prioritize that mission, and therefore has not seen their partners in some time. This would also lend itself to some savory unknowns: What had happened to Leera, and has he succumbed to the Shadow? Is Tannar alive? Do they have any children, and if so, what had happened to them? Are their partners also Richti, or part of some other clan? (Again, the answer to that could be good fuel in the future, so it's left ambiguous.)

The Watch

All the above were initial thoughts on character generation the night before the game, so I had a framework for my character in mind. But now it was time to see what would happen when Lollec was thrown into the mix of session 5 in an already established story arc.

MXH (Michael), the GM, told me ahead of time that Rezzi and Rinic (2 PCs) were coming back from a mission that involved bring back separatists into the watch. Where did I fit in? Separatist for sure! But I already decided that I wasn't married to the separatist cause. We established pretty quickly that the journey I had been on had taken me past the borders of the clans, and it was during my return that The Shadow struck, and that I was still getting my bearings on the situation and the players in this conflict.

The players already had some great personalities, and you could see the bonds, as well as the conflicts, between the established characters. I quickly interjected myself as a sort of lurker in their scenes. Rezzi (The Bear, played by Mike) was quickly appearing to be the established leader, and Rinic (The Wolf, played by Horst) was the wildcard.

One of the Ties That Bind (i.e. character sheet bonds) I wanted to use was "I saw Rezzi in my dreams before I ever met them and am afraid to tell them." This made it easy to explain why I immediately started to gravitate towards these other characters, and the ongoing fiction made it easy to tap into this in a supernatural way. Another I used was "I have fond memories of the time spent with Rinic's clan." This worked well in establishing a scene where I began to hum a tune from Rinic's clan (the miners) to try and create a bond between us. It did help spur the conversation, but rolls went sour, feelings were hurt, and old wounds uncovered. But again: good drama and story came out of it.

At a later point I came in contact with Reva (The Eagle, played by Stephen), and our bond was a little more nefarious. The alliance between our clans was broken when The Shadow came. I decided this was something I had heard about (coming from my journey abroad) but would allow Reva to have strong thoughts about, and already give her a way to hold something against me.

I mention all these Ties That Bind because as a new player in the mix, they really made it very easy to establish quick narrative and flavorful connections with the rest of the party, especially given that I was new to the game and they were 5 sessions in. This isn't necessarily different from other PbtA games, however I did like that mix of bonds that are both personal (___ serves the gods faithfully, I trust them explicitly) and clan-related (The alliance between my clan and ___'s clan was destroyed by the Shadow) that flow through the choices.

In the narrative, Rinic and Rezzi come into the warrior camp that my people are also a part of. They ask for the separatists to join them. Rinic gets in a brutal clan conflict and goes overboard on the violence, but earns respect.

The Shadow's warriors make an appearance, and in this case they are the men of the clan, who are starting to take on mechanical and robot-esque features. This was something that MXH had started to establish in the game, and I can see how the build-up to any particular visualization of The Shadow could work really well in game. Similarly, woman effected by The Shadow take on a statuesque form, where they look "prettier" than in real life, but just sort of solidify. As a player, I'm coming a little late to the party, so it's a little quicker and less impactful for me, but I'm taking notes for when I get to run a session in the future!

The Shadow attacks, and Rezzi protects the separatist leader, but also loses his arm (mechanically in game he had reached the limit of harm, and to reduce it had to take a scarring wound). After the combat many of the separatists join the PC's group to join The Watch, and of course I am among them. We quickly join up with Reva.

We return to a Watch encampment, and are given a new mission... disrupt a force of The Shadow in a valley.

On a related note, this was probably the first PbtA game I've played with dedicated missions and mission moves. I know that games such as Night Witches does something similar, where there is a separate phase for downtime versus the action phase.

This definitely has quite a different momentum then games like Dungeon World, where actions are more on-going and embedded in the on-going narrative. Here, we actually stop, define who is planning to take which of the mission moves that are available (which appear to be: Watch Their BacksNavigate and StrategizeRecon and Lookout, and Take Point), and then roll all those to find out the outcome of the mission. Depending on how well you roll, you need to add complications, which have the effect of possibly killing off members of your party (NPCs), or people getting separated or captured, getting harmed, and so on.

Excerpt of Mission Moves from The Watch's Kickstarter sample

Excerpt of Mission Moves from The Watch's Kickstarter sample

This part of the game was done out of character, and we decided on where everyone would fit, and why. The rolls were made, and then we sort of got back into character and narrative, and made it all come together. It definitely worked, but I can see how the process may be jarring to some players used to more traditional games. It's also possible to run this more traditionally from a GM point of view, by having the mission narratively play out, and then have players roll when they trigger the mission moves, but this seems like it'd be difficult to pull off (and maybe not in the spirit of the game as written?)

I actually like the way our little vignettes and interludes happened after the rolls as we were establishing what happened, why, and how the complications arose. It felt much more like a story game with extremely loose scene framing rules, then any sort of traditional RPG, and I enjoyed it. Additionally, MXH, as the GM, definitely tied our decided role in the mission with the fiction, and we did describe in what way we took these tasks, planned our attack, or failed in our actions.

Post game and feedback

As with any of The Gauntlet games I've played in (three, so far), the players were fantastic, and table welcoming. I'm definitely planning to do more gaming in these circles, as the game and gamers are definitely in my wheelhouse.

The community has also taken to creating excellent Google spreadsheet type character sheets for easy online play, where you can see everyone's character conveniently in one place. Because of Google, you can all edit simultaneously, and see changes as they occur, which just makes the game run so much more efficiently. In this case, they had even created dice rolling buttons in the sheet, so a separate dice roller wasn't needed. Additionally, there were great spreadsheet tabs for NPCs, including names that were open for use, in case needed, and a map of the setting.

Overall, I really enjoyed the character dynamics of having a playbook / archetype and a clan. I love, as with most PbtA games, that we get to define the clans in game (and that they provide specific targeted questions for each clan to do so). I also like the thought that in game session #1, probably only a few clans are defined, and that the others come into play at later points in your campaign, as desired. This lets you continually flesh out the world without it being overwhelming at the start.

One criticism I felt coming was that the mission moves looked very static, and although they seem to capture the main elements you'd desire, and it was my first session and I enjoyed it, it seemed that the mission moves would become stale after approaching them for the fifth or sixth time. 

We discussed this element, and one feedback I had was that you'd think that mission moves and complications could be customized for the mission (just like creating custom moves in Dungeon World for specific shrines, or items, or companion classes). I'm not sure if this is the intention of a full game, or a pre-written campaign of sorts, but it seems like it'd work well. I wouldn't advocate that you'd do this for each mission per se... it seems that most missions would work well using the generic framework, and it'd be great to explore many of those complications provided over a couple of sessions. But I could see how some special missions, or missions that required only two individuals could possibly be tweaked for flavor.

Another element about this session was that we were all male players. Most of the characters were created as Cis women, although Rinic and I definitely shared a scene that tangentially involved our lack of identify as "female". Due to the nature of this game, it's definitely useful to ensure you have a table and space you feel comfortable playing in. I consider the X-card a necessity in any RPG gaming table, but would especially recommend it for any game that approaches sexuality as a major part of the setting.

A screenshot mid-game: players on left, characters in the magic spreadsheet on the right.

A screenshot mid-game: players on left, characters in the magic spreadsheet on the right.